A poem from September 1939 reaches out to September 2001

POET'S CORNER

September 16, 2001|By MICHAEL COLLIER

As I watched the New York World Trade Center towers explode and crumble last Tuesday morning, lines from "September 1, 1939," by British poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973), involuntarily returned to me:

Into this neutral air

Where blind skyscrapers use

Their full height to proclaim

The strength of Collective Man ...

But who can live for long

In an euphoric dream ...

Auden's poem arrived as a different kind of lens for translating the experience, the way it used to after I had committed it to memory, in the early '70s. Then it salved the alienation I felt about my country's moral and political crimes concerning Vietnam, Cambodia and Watergate. Auden's poem gave expression not only to my personal feelings of uncertainty and fear but also to my feelings as a confused and distrustful American citizen. Although the poem brings into sharp relief the conflict between individual and collective identity, it offers an antidote:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or police;

We must love one another or die.

Auden had arrived in New York City with friend Christopher Isherwood on Jan. 26, 1939, along with the news that Gen. Francisco Franco of Spain had taken Barcelona and that the Republican cause, which Auden had fought for, was doomed. Auden had left England to emigrate to America, seeking an environment where he might better pursue his art. After years of political engagement as a writer and intellectual, he no longer believed that literature had the ability to produce meaningful social change. Eight months later, on Sept. 1, 1939, German panzer and army divisions attacked Poland in a blitzkrieg, defeating its noble but ineffective troops of horse cavalry.

In less than a year, the world had changed for good. Auden would take up residence in America and in 1946 he became a naturalized citizen.

"September 1, 1939" can be counted among Auden's most famous works. Auden is one of the few 20th-century poets who could express -- the way classical odes were meant to express -- both a public and private response to a significant event such as the German invasion of Poland. His poem is imbued with the timeless quality we expect of great art and as such it looks beyond its specific moment, as if it had been written with future generations in mind.

As a war poem, it does not depict combat nor does it call us to arms. In true modern fashion, the power of Auden's poem does not lie in pieties of patriotism or revolution, but rather in its affirming skepticism:

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky ...

Of the many different emotions we all felt as we watched the events of Sept. 11, 2001, unfold, we must have experienced the kind of defenselessness Auden describes. I certainly did, though as more and more of the poem came to my mind, it brought with it a hard-won and contradictory assertion that the tragedies and horrors of modern life, whether they be personal or impersonal, can be faced if we are able to turn away from negation and despair.

September 1, 1939 by W.H Auden

I sit in one of the dives

On Fifty-second Street

Uncertain and afraid

As the clever hopes expire

Of a low dishonest decade:

Waves of anger and fear

Circulate over the bright

And darkened lands of the earth,

Obsessing our private lives;

The unmentionable odour of death

Offends the September night.

Accurate scholarship can

Unearth the whole offence

From Luther until now

That has driven a culture mad,

Find what occurred at Linz,

What huge imago made

A psychopathic god:

I and the public know

What all schoolchildren learn,

Those to whom evil is done

Do evil in return.

Exiled Thucydides knew

All that a speech can say

About Democracy,

And what dictators do,

The elderly rubbish they talk

To an apathetic grave;

Analysed all in his book,

The enlightenment driven away,

The habit-forming pain,

Mismanagement and grief:

We must suffer them all again.

Into this neutral air

Where blind skyscrapers use

Their full height to proclaim

The strength of Collective Man,

Each language pours its vain

Competitive excuse:

But who can live for long

In an euphoric dream;

Out of the mirror they stare,

Imperialism's face

And the international wrong.

Faces along the bar

Cling to their average day:

The lights must never go out,

The music must always play,

All the conventions conspire

To make this fort assume

The furniture of home;

Lest we should see where we are,

Lost in a haunted wood,

Children afraid of the night

Who have never been happy or good.

The windiest militant trash

Important Persons shout

Is not so crude as our wish:

What mad Nijinsky wrote

About Diaghilev

Is true of the normal heart;

For the error bred in the bone

Of each woman and each man

Craves what it cannot have,

Not universal love

But to be loved alone.

From the conservative dark

Into the ethical life

The dense commuters come,

Repeating their morning vow;

"I will be true to the wife,

I'll concentrate more on my work,"

And helpless governors wake

To resume their compulsory game:

Who can release them now,

Who can reach the deaf,

Who can speak for the dumb?

All I have is a voice

To undo the folded lie,

The romantic lie in the brain

Of the sensual man-in-the-street

And the lie of Authority

Whose buildings grope the sky:

There is no such thing as the State

And no one exists alone;

Hunger allows no choice

To the citizen or the police;

We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night

Our world in stupor lies;

Yet, dotted everywhere,

Ironic points of light

Flash out wherever the Just

Exchange their messages:

May I, composed like them

Of Eros and of dust,

Beleaguered by the same

Negation and despair,

Show an affirming flame.

From Another Time by W.H. Auden, published by Random House. Copyright c 1939 W.H. Auden, renewed by the Estate of W.H. Auden. Used by permission of Curtis Brown Ltd.

Maryland poet laureate Michael Collier's Poet's Corner appears monthly in Arts & Society.

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